Sir Edward Ford

Secretary to two sovereigns
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The Independent Online

Edward William Spencer Ford, courtier: born Repton, Derbyshire 24 July 1910; Tutor to Prince Farouk of Egypt 1936-37; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1937; Assistant Private Secretary to King George VI 1946-52, to Queen Elizabeth II 1952-67, Extra Equerry 1955; MVO 1949, KCVO 1957, GCVO 1998; CB 1952, KCB 1967; Secretary, Pilgrim Trust 1967-75; Secretary and Registrar, Order of Merit 1975-2003; ERD 1987; married 1949 The Hon Virginia Polk (née Brand, died 1995; two sons); died London 19 November 2006.

An archetypal courtier, one of the old school, with high intelligence and an independent mind, Edward Ford served for 21 years as Assistant Private Secretary to King George VI and the present Queen.

He might well have become a schoolmaster, a cleric or a barrister, for his father, the Very Rev Lionel Ford, was Headmaster of Repton and Harrow, and Dean of York, his mother was the daughter of a bishop, and he himself practised briefly at the Bar. He was precipitated into royal service by a single stroke of fate.

In 1933 Alan Lascelles was private secretary to the Earl of Bessborough, Governor-General of Canada, living and working in Ottawa. "Tommy" Lascelles's son John, then 11, and his cousin Victor Gordon Ives were getting out of control: they were being poorly taught, and clearly not going to pass their entrance exams for Eton next summer.

Tommy therefore wrote to his friend Jasper Ridley, asking him urgently to find a suitable tutor, and as a result out came a graduate just down from New College, Oxford, where he had obtained a second in Greats. "Our tutor, Edward Ford, is a very nice young man," Tommy reported. "He hammers away at the boys in stern pedagogic fashion, but is the best of companions with them out of school." They in turn loved him, for, although he was strict, he was also full of jokes and fun. Soon, flushed with their new grasp of Latin, they christened him "Fordus", and he became a close friend of the family. John's sister Caroline had a French governess who taught her a little poem beginning, "Où vas tu, nuage?", and, whenever Ford met her in later life, he would greet her with those words.

After a year as Harmsworth Scholar, studying law in the Middle Temple, he became private tutor to the 15-year-old Prince Farouk, heir to the throne of Egypt, who was then living in England. To the Lascelles family, he was now "Fordus Pasha", and he was paid the colossal salary of £2,000 a year; but he found his pupil neither receptive nor congenial, and was relieved when, in 1936, King Fuad died and Farouk, succeeding him, returned to Egypt.

For two years, 1937 to 1939, Ford practised at the Bar. Then active service with the Grenadier Guards took him to Dunkirk, Tunisia, Belgium and Italy, and brought him two mentions in despatches. In the summer of 1945 he was working as an instructor at the staff college at Haifa when he received a letter from Lascelles, who by then was Private Secretary to King George VI, and was looking to replace a retiring colleague. Ford answered the call, immediately hit it off with the King, and in January 1946 began his stint in royal service.

As assistant first to Lascelles, and then to Sir Michael Adeane, he enjoyed working for two sovereigns, and his relations with colleagues were harmonious. When the King died at Sandringham in February 1952, the news was considered too dire to travel electronically, and it was Ford who went in person to take word to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and to Queen Mary. But in 1967, when Adeane, wanting to make way for Philip Moore, asked Ford to move sideways and look after the young Prince of Wales, he declined to accept the suggestion, and stepped down.

In 1949 he married Virginia, daughter of the banker Lord Brand and widow of John Metcalfe Polk. From her father she inherited a small Palladian villa, Eydon Hall, in Northamptonshire, and they lived happily there, also acquiring an elegant house in London, in Little Venice.

Never idle, he became (in 1975) Secretary and Registrar of the Order of Merit. He was also, at various times, High Sheriff of Northamptonshire, Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust, and - a particular enthusiasm - Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths' Company. It was Ford who, in 1982, suggested in a letter to the Queen that her family had had an annus horribilis, thus inadvertently furnishing her with a catch-phrase which evoked much sympathy from the public.

Even in retirement he looked very much the courtier, with his upright carriage, his long face and startlingly high-arched eyebrows, which often gave him a slightly formidable appearance. For the last 15 years of his life he derived huge enjoyment from his status as the last repository of ancient royal secrets, and he had that wonderful private secretary's skill of sometimes being discreetly indiscreet. Neighbours gained the impression that his home was permanently full of television crews, trying to worm classified information out of him; but he always remained staunchly loyal to the monarchy, and defended the institution with good-humour. His memory remained prodigious, his appetite for knowledge and reminiscence insatiable, and he never gave offence.

At the very end of his life he amply repaid his debt to the Lascelles family by advocating that Tommy's wartime diaries should see the light of day. He knew, as well as anyone, that it is the traditional duty of the courtier to hold his pen and his tongue. But he also knew that the diaries were of major historical importance, and as Tommy's literary executor he felt bound to lobby for their publication.

After several earlier rebuffs, in November 2003 he wrote a personal letter to the Queen, respectfully asking if she felt able to waive the normal rules - only to get the usual dusty answer from the Private Secretary's office. But then, in February 2004, the Queen herself sent him a handwritten note in which she said that, after much thought, she had changed her mind, and that now, more than 50 years after the period they described, she believed the diaries could come out.

The result was the appearance, earlier this month, of the third volume of Sir Alan Lascelles's diaries, King's Counsellor: abdication and war; and on 7 November, at a small party given by the Lascelles family to launch the book, Ford made what turned out to be his last public appearance. By then his face had become alarmingly gaunt, and friends feared that, at the age of 96, the hand of death was upon him. But everyone present was greatly moved by the fact that he had made a supreme effort to come out and join in the celebration for his lifelong friend and mentor.

Duff Hart-Davis